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Random Accessibility Thoughts: We Blind People Need to Change the Path of Least Resistance

May 20, 2018 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

When I was 13 years old, all the way back in 1986, I learned exactly how horrible some people were when I found out the principal of my local high school was not going to let me enroll because of my blindness. She wondered things like, “how would he use the bathroom” and thought I should stay at the school for the blind, which she determined to be the “least restrictive environment” for my educational needs.

This discrimination was ultimately put down, and my local school district had to pay for me to attend public school in another district where I was actually wanted, thanks to the support of family and friends and a hard fought legal battle won on my behalf by the National Federation of the Blind.

Despite this victory, and my subsequent educational success in high school, I lost a lot of my innocence and my ears were forced wide open. I realized, once and for all, that my blindness really did set me apart from the rest of the world and that I would be constantly forced to prove my worth as a human being over and over again for anything I wanted to accomplish. I quickly decided there was an “us vs. them” scenario with “us” being myself and others like me, my blind brothers and sisters, and “them” being the sighted people comprising the rest of the world around me. At age 13, it was already war time!

Then, just one year later, in 1987, I got my first computer, an old Apple 2E with an Echo speech synthesizer! It even came with a 1200 baud modem! It was almost immediately followed by the awesome, revolutionary Braille ‘n Speak note taking device by Blazie Engineering!

I quickly discovered the incredible potential for computer technology to level the playing field for blind people like me. As I integrated technology into my life, I found it enabled a vast amount of communication and greater information access. I could complete the majority of my homework on the long car rides home from school. I could read some books, especially those on technology, using a brand-new service called Computerized Books for the Blind (CBFB). I could communicate with blind and sighted people on computer bulletin board systems on terms of equality. I could even, finally, do my own logging of the contacts I made on amateur radio, saying “goodbye” to static paper logs written with my Perkins Braille Writer and unweildy tape recordings my mom manually wrote into a printed logbook.

In the late 1980s, as I progressed through high school and enhanced my technology skills, I thought I was on top of the world and I just knew there wasn’t anything a blind person couldn’t do if only they set their mind to it and used the necessary technology. While sighted students were still plodding along with pencil and paper, I was taking better and quicker notes on my Braille ‘n Speak. While some Braille books were still available from several sources in the older transcribed format, we started scanning, transcribing and Brailling our own books using technology. With floppy disk, Braille ‘n Speak and the accompanying serial cable in hand, I was the mad scientist around school, hooking up my gizmos to the various IBM computers around school so I could enjoy their text-based user interfaces largely on terms of equality with my sighted peers. In conjunction with my talking radios, I could hook up my computer and enjoy packet radio just like my fellow amateur radio operators around the world.

In this scenario, in any situation where I found I really needed sight in order to accomplish something, I generally found an available sighted person willing to read something to me, because, I knew, thanks to the philosophy instilled in me through my association with the National Federation of the Blind, my blindness wouldn’t stop me from doing anything I set my mind to accomplish.

Sadly, while enjoying my text-based technology, I began to realize the sighted world was leaving us behind. While we blind people clung onto DOS, sighted people moved to Windows. As sighted people embraced the Internet, the old systems like command-line shell accounts, FTP, Gopher and text-based email moved onto the World Wide Web. While we plodded along with our text-based Lynx web browser, sighted people moved on to NCSA, Netscape, Internet Explorer and, finally, to the browsers we know today. As ebooks finally became normalized in the sighted world, blind people got left behind through the use of inaccessible, protective wrappings around information that should have otherwise been accessible.

Fast forward to today, 2018, 31 years after I got my first computer… I think we have another chance at truly equal accessibility, but will we insist on taking it for ourselves?

As I see it, we blind people enjoy the following technology advancements which should help us catch up to the sighted world, if not actually compete with the sighted on terms of equality once in awhile:

  • The free, open-source Nonvisual Desktop Access (NVDA) screen reader makes computer technology more affordable and accessible to more blind people than it has ever been before.
  • Popular operating systems including Android, iOS, Mac OS and Windows all now feature built-in screen readers blind people can use out of the box without the need to purchase and install a separate, 3rd-party solution.
  • Internationally-recognized guidelines, such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, provide website developers with the framework they can follow in order to insure their sites are accessible to people with disabilities.
  • Mainstream technology companies, including Adobe, Apple, Google and Microsoft, all provide best practices and tools for insuring the content created using their solutions is accessible to people with disabilities.
  • Legislation, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act in the United States, as well as many other similar laws around the world, are avenues we can use to obtain equal accessibility as a human right.
  • And, finally, when everything else fails, we now have visual-interpreting services such as Aira and Be My Eyes, where we can go back to a scenario where we employ sighted readers to access critical information we’re just not going to get any other way.

Despite all these assets at our disposal, it sadly seems the world around us remains largely inaccessible…

  • The staff at doctor’s offices, hospitals and other healthcare facilities usually whine about HIPAA and being too busy when they are asked to provide accessible, electronic medical records or even, all too frequently, to help us fill out their inaccessible paperwork.
  • Many blind college students still can’t gain access to their textbooks on time because they are not available in an accessible format they can read.
  • There are still lots of blind people who can’t get hired, are unable to perform important parts of their jobs or find themselves left out of promotional opportunities due to the use of inaccessible workplace apps, websites and other forms of information technology.
  • Banks, health insurance companies, and a myriad of other private businesses often still communicate with their customers using inaccessible websites, send inaccessible critical correspondence and insist on inaccessible, obsolete methods of communication without providing reasonable accommodations to blind customers.
  • Many grocery delivery services, stores and other e-commerce companies continue to insist on using inaccessible apps and websites, despite the plethora of options available for making them accessible.
  • Even some companies with an apparently forward-looking approach to accessibility often fail to take care of obvious accessibility issues that lock us out, what I call the accessibility low-hanging fruit, choosing instead to focus on catchy, fancy, whiz-bang accessibility features while hiding behind their “accessibility teams” who rarely, if ever, respond to genuine feedback about their inaccessibility.
  • Even seemingly regulated federal and state government agencies continue to communicate using inaccessible websites, send inaccessible critical correspondence and insist on inaccessible, obsolete methods of communication without providing reasonable accommodations to blind people.

As the available information and technology for making things accessible improves on a daily basis, I become angrier and angrier each time I encounter yet another inexcusable accessibility barrier. As a blind person who is not broken and is, in fact, a full human being with the same responsibilities, rights and intrinsic value as that sighted person over there, I vow to continue fighting the good, accessibility, fight and I am always looking for a few good warriors to join me.

So, this is all very disappointing and discouraging, isn’t it? What can, or must, we do when we encounter accessibility issues that discriminate against us and lock us out of full and equal participation? Here are just a few ideas:

  • Contact a company on social media services, such as Facebook or Twitter, pointing out the accessibility issues and asking that they be directly addressed.
  • Write and send a certified letter to a company’s CEO pointing out accessibility concerns, providing possible solutions and asking him or her to direct the prompt, ongoing resolution of those concerns in a sustainable manner.
  • Engage in structured negotiations or take other legal action against a company as you deem appropriate after trying other, less drastic methods first.
  • Publicly call out all organizations doing business specifically in the blind community whenever you encounter accessibility barriers, as the leadership of these organizations should always know better.

So, in conclusion, finally… I think there are two ways we can go down the road of better accessibility: optimistic and pessimistic. We should try the optimistic approach first: simply politely point out the accessibility barrier(s), provide possible solutions if you have some good ideas and directly ask for prompt, sustainable resolution… But, if that optimistic approach does not work, we should be willing to go to war… In the pessimistic approach, we have determined that the gloves are off and playing the nice guy is no longer going to work. As I see it, the key goal of this approach is simply to change the perceived path of least resistance from one of inaccessibility and ignoring us to one of greater accessibility and attention to our feedback. This pessimistic, or cynical, approach involves taking complicated, difficult and often dramatic steps such as digging in by not doing what is asked in the inaccessible manner, legal action, protesting at the CEO’s office or in the streets and consistent public call-outs of the organizations ongoing wrongdoing.

Let’s all figure out how to work together, as blind brothers and sisters, to break down, using all means necessary, the accessibility barriers that hold us back from living the lives we want.

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